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Listen: Jack Halberstam on "Trans* Bodies and Power in the Age of Transgenderism"

Jack Halberstam on Trans* Bodies and Power in the Age of Transgenderism

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During the fall semester, Jack Halberstam delivered the lecture "Trans* Bodies and Power in the Age of Transgenderism." In it, Halberstam investigates desires, orientations, and experiences of the gendered body that are nestled within the elliptical modes of address that stretch between what can be said, what can be thought, and what feels possible if not probable. It is not a survey of transpeople, trans experience, or trans politics so much as an account of the spaces between that have opened up as old classification systems give way to new and as gender norms, bodily practices, and desires are reconfigured within new matrices of meaning, politics, violence, and fleshly becomings. The lecture looks back to Halberstam's work on gender variance in Female Masculinity and thinks through the shifting configurations of gender and desire that is both named, narrated, predicted, and critiqued. 

Halberstam is a visiting professor of gender studies and English at Columbia University. He is the author of five books including: Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke University Press, 1995), Female Masculinity (Duke, 1998), In A Queer Time and Place (NYU Press, 2005), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012) and has written articles that have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and collections. Additionally, Halberstam has co-edited a number of anthologies including Posthuman Bodies with Ira Livingston (Indiana University Press, 1995) and a special issue of Social Text with Jose Munoz and David Eng titled “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” Halberstam is currently working on several projects including a book titled WILD THING on queer anarchy, performance and protest culture, the visual representation of anarchy and the intersections between animality, the human, and the environment. This talk is taken from another new Halberstam short book, Trans*, forthcoming from University of California Press in 2017.

Audio Transcript

Patty White:  Thanks for coming out. It's a really difficult time of the semester. I especially want to thank the students from Queer Media, raise your hands, who have made their screening slot a welcome space for guest speakers most of the semester, and this is our last time. I'm delighted to be introducing Jack Halberstam. My name is Patty White, and I teach in Film and Media Studies here at Swarthmore and I am currently the Coordinator of Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Tonight is the first of a two day event that brings two important figures, queer theorist Jack Halberstam and German novelist, Antje Ravic Strubel, together here at Swarthmore to think about the production and dissemination of knowledge on female masculinities and transgender issues. This event was conceived and organized by my colleague, Dr. Uta Betray in Gender and Sexuality Studies and German Studies, can you please raise your hand and stand up, in conjunction with her own research on transnational transgender.

In addition to Gender and Sexuality Studies and the German section, this event was cosponsored by the Provost's Office, the Dean's Office, the Department of English, and the Intercultural Center. I want to thank all our cosponsors for coming together as we kept saying, "No, we need a little more."

Tonight, we're delighted to welcome back Jack Halberstam. Jack's previous visits here have been really generative occasions to engage intellectually with issues about which many of us are deeply passionate, and I remember those, I think maybe two previous visits, really well, and I just want to thank you for coming back and giving a next generation of students an opportunity for such an experience. Many of them have been reading your work in their classes, and will have, I'm sure, very good Swarthmore type questions to ask you.

Let me say a little bit about Jack. After teaching for many years in California at UCSD and then later at USC, Jack Halberstam is currently visiting professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University, and will probably be not a visiting one next year. We're very happy to have Jack on the east coast. Halberstam is the author of five books, including Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, one that we connected around film studies in that one, the widely influential Female Masculinity, which this talk revisits in part, as well as the next one, In a Queer Time and Place. Also, the Queer Art of Failure and Gaga Feminism. Many of you are familiar with these works, as well as many articles, interventions, blog posts on the influential blog, Bully Bloggers, and other public intellectual comments.

Halberstam has, also, co-edited anthologies including Post Human Bodies with Ira Livingston, and a special issue of Social Text with Jose Munoz and David Eng called What's Queer About Queer Studies Now? Again, Jack writes frequently online, and I invite you all to follow his work on topics including queer failure, popular culture, subculture, visual culture, and gender variance.

Halberstam is currently working on several projects, including a book titled Wild Thing, Unqueer Anarchy. Philadelphia is a good place to come for research on queer anarchy. It is. Performance and Protest Culture and the Intersections Between Animality, the Human and the Environment, as well as another short book, Trans*, from which this current talk is taken.

Jack is going to speak tonight, followed by a Q&A, and tomorrow, he'll be back as an interlocutor with Antje Strubel, and I'm going to just introduce Antje now.

Renowned contemporary German writer, Antje Strubel, has published six novels and two well received travel essay books, one on Sweden and one on her home state of Brandenburg. Her latest episodic novel, Into the Woods of the Human Heart, from this year, 2016, from which she'll read tomorrow, challenges heteronormative assumptions of gender, desire, love, and sexuality, as well as of national belonging and transnational movement.

There's a character in the book that is in a part influenced by Halberstam's work in female masculinity, and that's part of the basis of the dialogue they'll have. Strubel's reading will be at 5:00 in the Scheuer Room across the way if you're not from Swarthmore, and then there will be a dialogue between Halberstam and Strubel, and we'll have a nice reception after that. That's Scheuer, 5 P.M., the Scheuer room in Kohlberg Hall, 5 P.M. tomorrow.

Now I'm really excited to hear this talk, so bring it on. Thank you so much.

Jack Halberstam:    All right. Thank you for coming out. I know it's the end of the semester. You guys probably have papers due and all kinds of stuff. I'm really happy to be here. I want to thank Uta, also, for reaching out and asking me to engage in a dialogue with Antje, as well as maybe give a bit of a survey of some of the work that I've done on gender variance, female masculinity, and transgenderism at a moment when transgenderism is an incredibly popular public topic, which when I began doing my work on gender variance, probably like 20 years ago now or something, I would write about figures like Gluck, who was a painter from the 1920s and '30s, his beautiful painting of Gluck by Romaine Brooks, and I was interested in these figures and their masculinity, but I didn't slot them into a classification system that we would recognize today under the headings of transgenderism.

Basically what I want to do today is lay out where we've been in terms of discussing transgenderism, what kinds of figures, what kinds of arguments we made, what kinds of films have we talked about, what kinds of embodiment have we understood under the heading of transgender, and then make a turn in the second half of the talk to thinking about what we have to say about transgender now, because I think it's quite easy to come of age in a moment where transgenderism is widely discussed. You guys have gender neutral bathrooms. There's a TV show, Transparent. There are people in the media, on the news, who are talking about transgenderism on a daily basis as something that we want to organize around, that it makes sense to build a community and relationship to.

But 20, 25 years ago, gender variance was a psychopathology, a deviance. It was an exclusionary category, and it was very, very little understood. When I wrote Female Masculinity, masculine women were just the default category that signified ugliness. It was just like you fell out of heterosexuality, and you represented a certain stereotype and often homophobically hated version of lesbianism.

One of the things that I wanted to do with that category of female masculinity, if you like, was rescue the butch from this assignation of monstrosity, and see what forms of culture, what kinds of expression, what understandings of embodiment collected around her and the people that she dated, and so on.

It's a very identitarian book. It dovetailed very much with gay and lesbian studies, but there were, also, chapters in there where I debated the difference between a butch and a transgender man, for example, that I think led into some of the discussions that we still have about the very blurry lines between different forms of transgenderism. While those things seem much clearer to you guys maybe today, to young people, at the time, the difference between somebody who is taking hormones and somebody who wasn't was not that big. It wasn't that clear what ontologically made one category separate from another.

It's not a terrible time to go back and look at some of these materials, the material archive of gender variance, that I'm actually using the term trans* for. Trans* is a little book that I've just written. It's coming out from UC Press probably in the spring, and I use the asterisk precisely because I don't simply mean transgenderism, and I don't mean transsexuality, and I don't mean simply anyone who has any kind of trans activity whatsoever. I mean that there's an unknowability about what the meaning of trans activity might be in relationship to any gender variant body. The asterisk postpones the assignation of meaning, and the sense that we know exactly what we mean by transgender. It's Trans*. It's a whole set of orientations towards gender variance that now forms some kind of loose collectivity, and have something to tell us about the gendered body in the early twenty-first century.

As I said, this is the kind of figure that I would have begun with 20 years ago to try to make sense of, and ask the question why the masculine woman is so hated today in the end of the twentieth century. But in the early twentieth century, masculine women abounded. They were central to post World War I culture in Europe in the wake of a devastating war, a big absence of male bodies. Masculine women were everywhere, and they were painted. They made work. They circulated. They joined the Army. They joined the nursing corp, and they were not simply shunted off to the side. Something happened from about the 1920s and '30s to the 1950s, that changed radically the meaning of female masculinity in the culture.

That's female masculinity. In a later book, in A Queer Time and Place, I made the argument that queerness wasn't simply a configuration of body, identity and desire, but that queerness actually names a different relationship to time and space. We're queer not just because of the people that we like to have sex with, but that often we cleave to different narratives of life itself. A lot of young people growing up queer, disidentified, at least in my era, with marriage. For example, that moment when you realize you're queer and you think, "You mean I don't have to get married and have kids," was this great triumphant, "Oh, thank God. This is amazing." It's really weird then to be in that generation and see gay marriage come around to being this devoutly desirable activist goal. This book tried to argue for queer orientations to time and space, different ways of plotting a life narrative, different ways of thinking about subcultures, and mobility, and so on.

I've, also, written a book on failure to argue, and I think in the age of Trump, you guys are all going to agree with me on this one, that it's better to fail than to succeed at a moment when success is so clearly oriented towards the accumulation of wealth, the exploitation of others, and the cultivation of normativity. In that context, failure seems like it might have something to offer for thinking about queer coalitions and activism. This is the little Trans* book, and I'll come around to this towards the end of my talk.

All right. Let's lead in. In the first section, I want to talk about something that I called a long time ago the transgender gaze, and say what I mean by it, and then talk about three films that really defined the way in which people began thinking about transgenderism much more broadly in and around the late 1990s in the US, so three very important films. We'll look at the way in which they approached the transgender body, what kinds of theories of gender variance came out of those films, what kinds of discussions, and then I'll just close by giving you three very, very new examples of ways that people are thinking and talking about transgenderism.

The transgender gaze, I suggested that rather than just occupying the space of being looked at and pointing at the transgender body and trying to figure out what it is, we can identify transgenderism with, also, a way of seeing the world. You're not just someone who occupies space and other people look at your gender variance. You, also, look back at the world, and so here are some beautiful photographs from the Hungarian photographer, Brassai, and the most significant thing for me is the way in which these figures, who were part of a ... He photographed them in a lesbian bar called The Monocle in Paris in 1932. These figures, he then narrated in the book that eventually Brassai published the photographs of these folks. He talked about them as sad, lonely misfits, who were wearing tuxedos, and were in mourning for masculinities they could never inhabit, and that they were all these weird women who wanted to be men.

That's weird, because we actually see a woman in the photograph who doesn't look masculine, and doesn't seem to be a woman who wants to be a man, and people actually don't seem to be in mourning. They seem to be perfectly happy, and they are returning the gaze. They are posing for the camera, and they are modeling a kind of confident relationship to masculinity that is part of what I would call a transgender gaze, a way of looking at the world from within the transgender body, refusing just to be looked at, and inhabiting instead a space of returning the gaze in a kind of bold way. This is what they were looking at. They were looking at another staged photograph in which an elaborate culture was unfolding, that rather than reinforced their deviance, marginalization, and impossibility, made them part of a very elaborate and, as it turned out, very active queer scene in Paris in the 1930s.

Paris in the 1930s had like fourteen lesbian bars. I knew somebody for a while who was doing research on all these bars, and it was a kind of incredible scene. New York, as far as I can tell, has like three now. We shouldn't be looking back at the '30s and thinking, "Oh, how difficult it must have been for people then." There's, also, a sense of my God, what happened here? With all of this success, where has all of this amazing cultural life disappeared to?

Transgenderism, I think, is not simply then a new identify among many others that's competing for space under some rainbow coalition of different kinds of identities. It's, also, a way of seeing, a way of being seen. It's a modality of passing, and it is literally a form of composition, in which someone makes themselves differently from the way in which the world has expected them to be composed. Do you see what I mean? These are deliberate acts of self-construction, in which a woman has to go out and clothe herself in a tuxedo, and believe that it looks good, and make it work, to cite I think a show about such things.

This, for me, is evidence, in fact, of a very different trajectory of transgender life going back to the early twentieth century.

Now you may or may not remember that the transgender person made regular appearances in film, culture from about the 1950s to the 1980s as a monstrous, murderous other, and this is just one great example of Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill, where he played a trans woman. I think he was a therapist, right? Patty as well, he was, also, the therapist, and he wanted to be a woman, and because he couldn't be a woman, he killed women, as if this is who serial killing works, as opposed to hyper toxic, White, normative masculinity. That's the usual profile of a serial killer. These kinds of films, like Dressed to Kill, and some slasher films, and even the Silence of the Lambs has a serial killer who is a trans person at its center. There are a whole bunch of these movies in which trans people appeared only as monstrous, murderous, violent others, who the culture had to protect themselves from and figure out how to stop.

Given that kind of history, right, it was really amazing in the early '90s all the way through to the late '90s, to see a series of films take on transgenderism really differently. How many of you younger folks have seen The Crying Game? Okay. See, this is interesting. How many people in the room have seen The Crying Game? Okay.

Here's the thing you won't know then. When we went to see The Crying Game in 1992, we were told, we were asked by the director, we were told there was a secret at the heart of the film, that even you may want to discuss the film with your friends, please don't give away the secret. The secret was when the main character, Dil, revealed herself as having male anatomy to the hero, Fergus, who has come on a mission to woo here, and believes that she is a female bodied woman, and so there's this moment, this dick shot basically at the heart of the film, the surprise moment, from which the hero recoils and he's sick. He can't believe it, and the audience, too, is supposed to have that kind of reaction, where it's like, "Oh, my God."

But the point is that the film allowed you already to have already confected to Dil, who is a Black British woman who had been involved with a Black British soldier, who had been fighting for the British Army in occupied Ireland, and, therefore, it was a film that made transgenderism central to other kinds of political projects. It wasn't only about the relationship between Fergus and Dil. This was a pioneering piece. It was a film in which transgenderism was part of an unfolding narrative about the contradictions that were at play for Black soldiers fighting on behalf of a racist nation against the IRA in Ireland. Within that set of issues around nationalism and race, there's a light skinned Black transgender woman with whom the IRA guy, Fergus, falls in love.

It was a pretty radical film. In the very heart of the film, there's a beautiful allegorical moment in which Dil, her name is Jody, Jody lip syncs to the song The Crying Game, and this lip syncing is supposed to be a metaphor for the performance of gender that she's engaged in. It was clever. It was smart. It linked transgenderism to a much larger political project about blackness and nationhood, and it gave us many, many different ways of understanding transgenderism, as maybe a mismatch between voice and song, as a contradictory embodiment and so on. That was in 1992.

1999 saw the release of Boy Don't Cry. For younger people then, you have seen Boys Don't Cry, right? How many people have seen Boys Don't Cry? All right. This is interesting. I just received an email today from somebody at Reed College. They had invited Kim Pierce, the Director, out to do a talk, and Kim was protested by a very, very large group of very angry, very vocal students at Reed College, who did not want her to speak, and who protested the college for bringing her. They want me to write a response and maybe try to break down the importance of the film for them, the faculty do, because they could not understand this response.

The protest was around accusations that Kim Pierce had exploited transgender life and death for her own profit, and had made a film in which she was not particularly engaged with the subject matter, and she had just callously made a film about the death of Brandon Tina, and had done very well off of it. It was a sort of trans lives matter, and that was one of the protest slogans, and no more profit off of trans lives.

That's what I gave the set up at the beginning, which is that boundary between trans men and butch so called women in the early '90s, when people were not getting surgeries, when hormones were not widely available was not as clear as it might be to some of you guys here today, and Kim is somebody who identifies as a butch, who could have transitioned. I mean it wasn't necessarily at a moment where she knew whether she was going to transition. She uses she pronouns. But who felt that somebody about Brandon Tina's story ... Brandon was, also, someone who did not transition, who did not have access to hormones, did not have surgery, did not exactly call himself transgender. He did pass as a man or as a boy, but he did not say, "I'm a transgender man," at any point in his short, young life.

You could say that Kim and Brandon shared all kinds of things in common. It is not as clear to people who were around when the film was being made that Kim was not Brandon, that Kim was so obviously not Brandon that Kim should not have made that film, but apparently for the young people at Reed College, this is a travesty.

I find that super interested. I just wanted to put that out. Maybe in the Q&A people can weigh in, give me some commentary on that.

Why was the film so important? Well, the Brandon Tina case was a huge case at the time. Brandon had been killed by these two boys in the small town, Falls City outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. Had not gone to the big city, had not sought out a metropolitan community, and had an easier time passing in a small town, but was, also, punished much more severely when he was found out.

The film was amazing, not simply because of the subject matter, but because of the way in which it was made, and, again, as with the lip syncing in The Crying Game, in Boys Don't Cry there were a number of really experimental features to the film, moments where this time lapse photography is used to suggest that Lon and Brandon are out of time as well as out of place. There are out-of-body experiences that Brandon has that the camera captures as two Brandons. For a realist narrative film, there are a lot of experimental moments in the film that I can't totally get from interviewing Kim whose idea it was. Maybe it was the cinematographer. Maybe it was the producer. I'm not sure. But it layered the narrative of transgenderism through a very complex visual text. Do you see what I mean?

Rather than just going for the narrative of here's a young trans person. They've been brutalized. This is a terrible thing that's happened, it gives you yet another visual grammar for thinking about transgenderism that was enormously useful at that moment in order to get out of a simple identity politics, is he or isn't he trans, and into these in between spaces that could be conjured visually, even if they couldn't be spoken discursively. For me, that was something that film did incredibly well.

Finally, a little bit later was By Hook or by Crook by Dodge and Howard, who have gone on to become celebrities of other kinds since, and Harry Dodge, I'll talk about him later, he's made some amazing video work, but he's, also, an incredible sculptor, and I want to actually show him some of his sculptures later on, and you can think about them in relationship to By Hook or by Crook.

Silas Howard, on the other hand, is one of the directors of Transparent. He is an openly transgender man, who has been invited to direct lots and lots of TV episodes, and a TV series that you may have well seen. He's one of the only transgender men who is making mainstream TV episodes at present. This was 15 years ago. It's a long arc. Art and success is a very long arc. It's something to really remember that for most people, success does not come overnight, if at all.

This film was amazing, because it was a very early crowdsourcing film. It was made, I think, on super 8 or high def video, and for a very small budget. They raised the budget from the community that they were making the film about. Trans and Trans* communities in San Francisco bought shares in the film, knowing that there was never going to be a payout. No one was going to make money off of By Hook or by Crook, but people wanted to invest in the film, and they bought shares, and maybe in return they got a $10 check or something once the film was actually sold.

It was a very early mode of crowdsourcing. They were first time filmmakers, did not know how to make a film. They acted in it. They bought books about directing, figured out how to work a camera, and it was a literal punk do it yourself job, in which, and this is one of the really beautiful things of By Hook or by Crook. Instead of there being a singular trans character who is isolated, alone, endangered, categorized as deviant, there are two trans characters played by Howard and Dodge, who are friends, and the friendship is so important, because for the first time really on screen, you saw transgenderism as a kind of form of intimacy, not a space of isolation or a space of marginality, and the friendship animates everything, and there is a madcap tale about the Harry Dodge character trying to find his birth mother that's very moving in its own right, and there are relationships with heart ladies, which is one of the terms they use, and all kinds of things happen. It's a kind of road trip film.

But it was a gorgeous film, because it never once mentioned the gender of the two main characters, and this is in 2001. It's not like there were a million films about trans people out there. Not once did anyone say, "Wait. What pronouns do you use?" They call each other he. This is before preferred gender pronouns who were de rigueur. They call each other he. They never have an explicit narrative about transgenderism, and the film simply picks up on the intimacy that they're able to create together.

The other thing to say about this film is that there's a beautiful montage sequence maybe a third of the way in that is shot at a beloved club in San Francisco, The Lexington, that's now defunct. It's closed down. It serves no narrative purpose, other than to bring in all of these people who basically bought shares in the film, and they have a little moment where there's a little screen test or a shot individually. It wasn't just a club with queer extras. It was literally like the camera would linger for a moment on the faces of the people who were their friends who had supported the film. Then there's a narrative beat when the Silas Howard character steals the Harry Dodge's character's wallet, and leaves the club, and then thinks better of it the next day.

It's one of those moments that we talk about in film theory. It's a montage sequence, so there isn't lots of narrative. There's no speech. Nobody's saying anything. There's music playing loudly. People are dancing. It's a moment of cinema. You're asked to watch watching. You're asked to think about the mes on sen. You're asked to think about where the camera is, why we're lingering on this body or that body, and it's instructive about how gender works within a visual universe. There are lots of moments like that. I thought it was really amazing.

I would say since then or after that, there's a very large lull. Those things come out within 10 years. 1992 to 2001, you get these three films, and then maybe there's like Trans America, a few mainstream attempts to capitalize on what seems to be a potential revenue stream, but not a lot until we enter into our current moment.

Let me just set up the next moment, and then I'll conclude then with, as I said, some contemporary representations that look very differently when looking at the transgender body. These representations of the transgender body had to oppose a cultural context in which trans people were seen as dishonest. They were people who were passing. They were, also, spectacles. You couldn't turn on a talk show in the early '90s without seeing someone interviewing a trans person asking incredibly intrusive questions about their genitalia, whether they could still have sex, whether they had orgasms, what it looks like down there, this kind of thing. These kinds of alternative independent media were incredibly important to counteract what was happening in the world of talk shows, where talk shows were all about the spectacle, putting some sort of freakish person, supposedly freakish person, on stage and having supposedly normative audiences judge them.

We seem to be out of that freak show moment of the talk show. Maybe I don't watch enough daytime TV, but maybe the internet took over that role. These kinds of films were really important.

At the same time, the transgender body was often cast as the quintessential orientation to post modernism. It was new. It was future. [Bodiard 00:32:37] wrote an entire essay about how the future was transgender, that we're all transgender, because this is what the body has been and will become. Butler's work was really in the early work. It motioned towards transgenderism and then in some of the later work, the transgender and the intersex body became really central.

I made the argument that I still think is, and here's the various ways in which transgenderism was situated post modern, medicalization, feminists saw transgender men and women as dishonest, as passing, as infiltrating, and then I in my work offered the possibility that we think about representing the transgender body through abstraction. We were so caught up in thinking about how to represent the figure itself, the transgender figure, that we didn't think about what it might mean to use abstract mechanisms. I'm going to give you some examples in case that sounds really weird, but any kind of subject matter can be represented figuratively, but can, also, be represented differently using abstraction.

For example, to make an alternative cinema around transgenderism, as opposed to a cinema that just says, "Here I am. This is my life. You should accept me," to give us these other kinds of visual mechanisms.

Here's a couple of examples. This idea of abstract bodies has been taken up only very recently in a book by David Getsy, who has a whole chapter on queer and transgender representation via abstraction. But abstraction was seen as a domain of a kind of universalist discourse and identity that couldn't be pinned to any particular body. I found, however, that there were artists who were very much engaged in abstract representation.

For example, you could look at the work of Eva Hesse from the late '60s, and she literally turned the body inside out, and she pulled all of these organs out of the body. What would it mean if we represented the body inside out? We're so obsessed with the surface of the body, the skin, the morphology of the body. She started pulling all of these shapes together to represent what happens if the body comes undone.

There's a contemporary corollary for that in the work of Paul Preciado, if anyone's read Testo Junkie. Testo Junkie is a brilliant account of somebody who takes testosterone, and from the perspective of someone high on testosterone, fear arises embodiment in the age of what he calls the pharmaceutical pornographic era or porno pharmaceutical era within which we are all governed not simply as external bodies, but we're regulated and conditioned via pharmaceuticals. Who isn't in relationship to some sort of pharmaceutical? He says, "Masculinity is a byproduct of Viagra. Reproduction is a byproduct of birth control. The gendered body is a byproduct of hormones, so we have to rethink the body from the inside out." Eva Hesse, back in the '60s tried to give us some images around that kind of concept of embodiment.

There's, also, these great Nancy Grossman masks, also, from I think the 1980s some of these. They were leather masks. Some of them seemed to be maybe of white faces, because you'd see a white nose, but not always. They were S&M faces, but they were ungendered. They mimic a certain kind of at least a fantasy of African masks, both riffing on quoting and maybe in a slightly troubling relationship, too. But these masks were, also, about the way in which the face is so important to the way that we think about gender, what happens when the face is covered? How do we know the meaning of gender then?

Then the person I wrote about was Linda Besemer, who is a butch artist who tried to represent embodiment by weaving paint sculptures. For example, she would peel paint off the canvas, and set the paint, this hardened paint up as a sculpture itself, as if to say that gender comes off the body and stands alone as a certain kind of embodiment. Abstraction, also, opens onto other ways of thinking about gendered embodiment.

All right. Here we are 10 years later. Probably I'm dating myself, really like 20 years later. Well, at least 15 years later. Can we agree on that? We are now in the moment of Caitlin Jenner. There's not a day goes by that you don't hear something about transgenderism in the news, bathroom bills. Trans people are now allowed to enroll in the US military, which has been celebrated. It's actually something that we should worry about, under the heading of what [inaudible 00:37:51] has called trans-normativity. We're definitely in a moment where there's a kind of enfolding of trans people of a particular variety into national belonging, and indeed Trump, at the Republican National Convention said, "LGBT people, you should know if I am elected president," at which we all snickered and laughed at that moment. Not anymore. He says, "I will fight for you. As your president, LGBT people, I will fight for you. I will win for you." If that's what winning means, we may well want to take losing.

But the point being that the Republican party is not necessarily, other than the religious right, opposed to trans people, other than if trans people are undocumented, homeless, sex workers, otherwise impoverished. Then there are all of these other mechanisms that have already isolated those people or targeted them for state violence.

This is a different moment. This is a moment when we have to assess the power that accrues to some transgender forms of embodiment. We have TV shows with someone like Caitlin Jenner, who is part of the Kardashian empire, these empires that now rule the world, the Hiltons, the Kardashians, the Trumps. We're in a moment of corporate capitalism really taking over from national forms of power, and Caitlin Jenner becomes the face of one particular media conglomerate. This is not something to necessarily celebrate, however much the series itself may have contained some interesting moments with Kate Bornstein, and Zackary Drucker, and other people who appeared on the show. As an actual spectacle, it's a reminder that the white nation expands exponentially to the thing that it yesterday said it could not possibly include. Today it can embrace, as long as we continue to have the same kinds of targets in terms of bodies of color, poor people, sex workers, and undocumented workers.

We're in a really different moment. That's the point that I want to start winding down with. We're in a moment where trans communities are no longer, many of them, on the very edge of society, but have been brought in. When the bathroom didn't pass in North Carolina, big business threatened to pull its money from North Carolina. The NBA said it would not have its all star game there.

We should not be continuing to make the same arguments about transgender communities. Transgenderism is a very clear part of neo liberal inclusion. It is a new set of identity categories that can be marketed, monetized, and turned into currency. On that moment, we now have to think differently about representing trans.

Okay. Transgenderism now appears against the ... That means present, the present tense of transgenderism against the background of gay marriage, which as many activists have said, have argued very convincingly is a streamlining of radical descent into compliance. The thing that one generation sees as the apex of civil rights, for another generation is the loss of radical agenda that has just been turned into something the law can easily do without much cost, but that changes very, very little for most people.

We have transgender visibility, trans normalization. This very good essay by Jasbir Puar on transgenderism and disability, and the way in which these two categories have had to be identified against each other. Transgenderism, so that it's less medicalized, and disability so that it doesn't get folded into pathology, and she makes the argument that there's a kind of normalization that's going on within each zone.

Then some people, like Mel Chen have argued for the materiality of gendered grammars, and Susan Striker, for thinking in terms of somatechnics. Not so much just about representing trans people, but thinking about all gendered bodies as part of these systems within which meaning is produced. I already talked about Preciado's sex politics.

All right. I want to conclude then just with three different examples of transgender projects that are much more recent, and are charting different trajectories for trans life, trans death, trans disappearance, and trans futures.

This one, which I'm writing a little bit about and I'm working with Sarah on another project. Sarah is a queer Jewish photographer from London, who when her mother died a few years ago, in her papers, she found a manila envelope on which was written the words Ken, to be destroyed, and in the manila envelope, she found all these photographs of her uncle dressed as a woman. In the same envelope, there are letters explaining ... Letters that went back and forth between Sarah's mother and her sister, Hazel, who was married to Ken. Hazel would write to her sister and say, "Ken wants to dress up as a woman. Ken thinks he's a woman. I don't know what to do. I'm allowing him to dress up as a woman in secret," and these letters explain this other life that Ken was living.

Sarah had to decide what to do with this legacy. It's a different legacy than the one that you've been handed. Imagine being handed this legacy. Her sister said, "Our mom wanted this to be destroyed. Ken wanted it to be destroyed. Hazel wanted it destroyed. You should destroy this cache of information." But Sarah decided to take it and turn it into a project, wondering about what it means to be in an identity under the heading of disruption. What does it mean to appear even as someone under the heading of to be destroyed, to come into visibility under the sign of destruction, and not to come out as transsexual, but to come out as somebody from the 1950s who cannot be recuperated into current understandings of transgenderism. It's a kind of lost identity that one has to puzzle about, rather than just, again, recoup.

One time when I presented this a little while ago, I used alternating pronouns for Ken. Ken is Ken, but he's, also, Kay, and somebody said, "Why are you using he pronouns? He was living as a woman, so it's she." That's the thing, it wasn't. We have to actually be able to live with the uncertainty that pertains and is proper to another moment, when someone lived as Ken and Kay, and did not express a preferred gender pronoun, did not have the option to transition, and who only comes to us under the sign of destruction. Sarah created this whole project, where she presented the photographs along with that manila envelope, which is really ominous, to be destroyed, Ken to be destroyed.

Here's a wedding photograph that ironically has the word proof scrawled on it. Of course, it's a photographic proof, but as a wedding photograph, it's supposed to stand as proof that Ken is a man. His marriage places him in a heterosexual matrix, and history is supposed to now be given the proof that he is part of a normative genealogy. But, of course, the photographs that follow undo that proof, and ask us to think about why we're so sure of the visual, why we put so much investment into the visual.

Sarah's sister did not want to be part of the project, and was very, very angry with Sarah, so Sarah cut her sister out of the family photograph, which is an incredibly violent thing to do, and Sarah immediately then in her catalog essay, writes about how terrible she felt that she had done this, but she wanted her sister to see what it feels like when unwanted relatives are excised from the narrative, from the family narrative. She wanted to present the family as something that only coheres by omitting, and you can only have the happy family picture as long as someone is radically misrepresented. The sister had to feel what it would feel like if 50 years from now she appeared or disappeared under the sign of destruction.

She, also, hand painted the photographs to try to make Ken's femininity, Kay's femininity appear for the historical record. There are no pictures of Kay dressed as a woman. There are only letters describing the secret life that she led with the permission of her wife. Sarah gives this gift across time, and tries to say as a queer relative to a queer lost uncle, aunt, "I want to restore your particular gendered identity to the record."

But there's, also, a reminder that when she restores Kay to a certain kind of femininity, she takes a husband away from Hazel. There's violence on all fronts when the trans person is neither allowed to appear or disappear.

The final act is to place Kay and Hazel side by side, and I think this is a beautiful picture. It speaks to the kind of weird pragmatic image we have nowadays of gay marriage, and this impossible marriage that is, in fact, not exactly a marriage, because it's not how they got married. This is not the marriage picture. It's more of a representation of what I would call radical adjacency, that they stand side by side, and that the wife was willing to stand side by side with Kay even if Kay was no longer her husband. They both left in their will that they wanted to be buried using that language, side by side.

What does it mean to live a life alongside? We talk nowadays about allies, but there are a lot of other ways that we could think about adjacency and side by sideness.

All right. Second to last example then. We could think about this one in relationship to The Crying Game, this secret that can't be revealed, that The Crying Game gives you this big moment where we finally see that Jody is actually in a male body, that is treated very differently in this piece, a much later piece.

The piece that would then be the contemporary corollary to By Hook or by Crook would be looking at Harry Dodge's work now, and how he has grasped a kind of abstract methodology, and he makes all of these sculptures basically out of discarded objects, that people immediately read as representations of the trans body. He's less clear that these are trans bodies, so much as they are an environment of all kinds of different bodies, and in a moment, I'll give you an image of all these different sculptural embodiments together in a gallery, where you suddenly feel as if you're seeing a whole other world of things, and beings, and bodies that is literally adjacent to our world.

I use the term hapticality for these objects, precisely because the haptic is a way of narrating that doesn't have an orientation or a goal. It's oriented to the sense of touch, rather than sight. Remember I was saying the visual locks you into a certain regime of knowing. The haptic doesn't. The haptic allows you to feel your way through something without needing to master it.

Here's a great quote from Laura Marks, who is I think one of the best theorists on the haptic. She says, "The haptic is a visual erotic that offers its object to the viewer, as Harry does with his sculptures, but only on condition that its unknowability remain intact, and that the viewer in coming closer, give up his or her own."

You remember when I showed you the pictures from The Monocle, and I said the transgender person is looking at you. It's not that we're looking at him. Similarly, these haptic objects ask you to reexamine what your body is by coming close to it, rather than ask you to say, "What kind of body is this?"

Harry is really irritated when people review his work and just say, "Well, what a great representation of transgenderism." This is the point. You approach the object only on condition that its unknowability remain intact. Is it possible to suspend the thing that you think you know about Harry and then about these sculptures that he makes?

Here's a little quote on the asterisk that, also, perform a haptic role. This great quote from Ava Haywood and Jamie Weinstein on the trans*, and they say, "The asterisks, a diminutive asterial symbol miming a starfish's limbic reach, follows trans and attaches to it, attaches it to something else, a spiky allogenic pollen [inaudible 00:51:45] mobilization, a viral latching onto membranes, surfaces of words. Trans* is meant in part to break open the category of transgender, trans woman, or trans man. It's recognized as an effort to include all nonsense gender identities. The asterisk is paratactic. It denotes a database search. It designates multiplication. It can be a disclaimer indexing the fine print. It indicates pseudonyms or names that have been changed, and in computer code, asterisk around a word will embolden it. The multi pointed asterisks is fingery, both points and touches. There's the haptic."

The trans*, if we go back to my original definition of trans*, it doesn't define trans. It points, and here's another image of Harry's does this pointing work for us, and this one's called Octopus Boy. The text is, "Each of my separate fingers lives in my heart." There's not a name for everything. Dodge's work is super interested in the unnameable, in the possibility that we might be engaged in forms of being that are without a name, and are basically defiant of the classification systems that seek to know, to name, to touch, hold, and enclose. Can we stay with the haptic that's just a pointing, a touching, a referencing, but not a knowing, claiming, and classifying?

There's a chattering room of the Dodge objects, and you can see how they form a society, a society of sculptures, rather than ... When you see them singularly, you just think what an odd little being that is, but when you see them together, when you go over to his house and see his studio, you're like, "Oh, my God." There's so many of them that you begin to start questioning your embodiment in relationship to these kind of regular forms of embodiment that have their own code, and you begin to notice when a certain nose appears. There are never fingers that are all articulated. There are always these fingers that are the finger that has become a kind of lobster hand. It's, also, a referencing of certain forms of disability. It's not about the perfect body, the known body. It's about the body that, also, comes undone, and is differently abled. I think of this as a kind of beautiful way of bringing together some of this work on disability and work on transgenderism.

On behalf of closing then with unknowability, I want to close with a performance that I just think is totally profound and otherworldly, by a performer called Boy Child. I don't know if you've ever brought Boy Child out to Swarthmore, but he is a mixed raced, multiply gendered person, who performs as if they are a being through whom some alien life form is speaking. It's a gorgeous performance that they understand as drag, but that it's drag like you've never seen. I know this is an amazing set up and you're just like this is going to be awful. I think you'll find it as peculiar and moving as I do.

Boy Child often performs as if he was constrained and trying to get out of a constraint. There's the last Harry Dodge. This is just a quick image of Boy Child performing a Cindy Sherman photograph on the right, and you can see they're multiply gendered form on the left. They, also, channel what's known as Butoh, a certain Japanese form of dance that was pioneered in the post nuclear era, to use dance to express the fact that in Japan, everyone knew that they were dying. They were dying slowly from the fallout from the radiation, and so Butoh was a whole generation of dances, performed this grotesque dance of death.

Boy Child has gone to Japan. After doing these pioneering first performances, and people kept saying to them, "Your work looks a lot like Butoh," so he's gone to Japan and started to study Butoh, and what you will see is that they are performing in a female body, but are not gender female. The song is Rhiannon's Rude Boy, slowed down to the point where the voice is male, even though we know that the address is of a woman saying, "Hey, boy, you better step up. You better be good. You better be hard. You better be big." There's a kind of heterosexual come on in the song that's turned into a queer anthem in the way that Boy Child performs it.

I hope you can see that we've traveled a long way from those three films that I began with, from the early pictures of female masculinity, butchness, the three films that changed the conditions of representation for the trans non-normatively gendered body, to these unleashed representations of an unknowable, unlocatable body, as we see with Boy Child, that's enmeshed in a completely different set of understandings about who we are, and the quote from [inaudible 00:57:20] uncommon is to say that this is a moment to let go of the old identity politics and look for these new forms of solidarity and mutuality.

This final quote, where they say, "Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good." We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the light to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate, the thing that I've been arguing can be found in these representations of the transgender body, and, finally, we owe each other everything.

If you go on a march this week, if you go on a protest next week, get a banner. But we owe each other everything on it, and stick it to Trump. Thank you.


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